Line in the Sand?

This year’s Spanish Grand Prix could be viewed as the tale of two arms. Had it not been for the numbness in Fabio Quartararo’s right one, the 2021 MotoGP Championship may have already taken on a predictable look. As it was, Jack Miller – a man still bearing the scars from limb surgery on 6th April to alleviate arm-pump – was best placed to benefit from the Frenchman’s misfortune.

But it wasn’t just Miller’s arm that held up here. To frame it that way would be a disservice to the Australian’s heart that was on display right the way through this weekend. Barely anyone had given the 26-year old a chance coming to Andalusia (myself included). Even without Quartararo’s sorry slide down the field, this was a performance as impressive as it was surprising. This race will be remembered as much for Jack silencing his critics, as it will be for the outpouring of emotion in parc fermé. No one can say he hadn’t earned it.

He may have been exaggerating when, post-race, he said, “I sent my resume out to a few construction companies in Australia, I thought it was done.” But it certainly gave us an idea of how Miller viewed the jeopardy surrounding his future. Several times he acknowledged this seventh season in MotoGP, and first as a factory rider, was a pivotal year in his career. There was no escaping it; the pressure was hanging over him since a disappointing first event in Qatar.

Not that he shied away. Quite the contrary. On Friday the Australian spoke of the toils he had undergone over the previous month. “We’re in the shit,” he said, referring to previous results. “I’m trying everything I can do to turn the ship around. I’ve never been so desperate to do that in my life.” In an interview with Italian website GP One, Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti spoke of “the negative spiral” Jack found himself in. Having topped preseason testing, 14 points from a possible 75 fell well below expectations. Three other Ducati riders had climbed the podium before him. And the arm pump issue in race two and his subsequent crash in Portugal, which ripped out his stitches, added to his self-doubt.

Ducati management had stood firmly behind him through the ups and downs of April. And Miller later revealed a special pep-talk got him believing again going into free practice. “Lucy Crutchlow [wife of Cal] called me up out of the blue throughout the week and was telling me, ‘You are f**king good. You can do it.’ [She was] Quite aggressive. Even [on Sunday] morning she sent me a text. It feels good to hear stuff like this sometimes. You need it. We’re all human. We all have doubts.”

Reading between the lines, it seems this has certainly been one missing ingredient from Miller’s makeup in recent years. Even with a two-second lead in the closing laps, there was a sense that he couldn’t quite grasp what he was about to achieve. “Turn twelve on the last lap, I didn’t believe it, to be honest,” he said. “I was like, ‘This can’t be real. There’s no way this can be real. I’ve never done this in my life.”

You certainly feel this performance should whittle away those doubts. Only one rider (Loris Capirossi) had taken Ducati to victory at Jerez before this day. And what a feather in Jack’s cap to not to drop away at the end (tyre management has been a regular criticism), but to also beat Francesco Bagnaia here. The Italian was comfortably quicker around Jerez in 2020. Miller finds himself on a bike that has been on the podium at each of the three tracks we’ve visited this year (and three fairly different ones at that). As Ciabatti mentioned in the Italian press, “he’s shaken off a huge weight, that he had mostly put on himself.”

There was also a feeling that he has found a formula to repeat this result in the future. “I just wanted to focus on what I could control,” he said of dealing with the pressure. “That’s me, my training and how I approach the races.” Miller hasn’t checked social media since the season started, and claimed he stopped reading the racing news (although pointed words in the Jerez press conference may suggest otherwise). “Reading 1000 negative comments isn’t going to do my mental well-being any good,” he said in Portugal. “It’s better to turn that crap off.”

Add in the absence of arm-pump at a track where he has suffered badly in the past, and another worry has been banished. “It felt so good riding 25 laps without limiting my braking or try and stretch my fingers out. Just ride the way I know how to ride. it felt so good. Huge thanks to Dr Mir,” he said.

For many years Miller has been one of the sport’s more interesting puzzles. From the moment he first exploded onto the scene at the 2012 German Grand Prix, on a little Caretta Honda Moto3 machine, it was clear his raw talent would carry him a long way. He came within two points of a world championship. At the age of 21 he won his first MotoGP race as a 750-1 outsider. And he’s since earned the trust of a factory as established as Ducati to lead its MotoGP effort on the back of ten podiums in two years.

Yet even as a multiple podium finisher, there was a sense he hadn’t quite lived up to that early promise. There have been a series of hurdles every step of the way. In 2015 his physical preparation fell far below what was needed at this level. But that was addressed. When he joined Pramac in 2018, team boss Francesco Guidotti admitted, “He wasn’t used to feel the pressure to be on top.” Again, that was addressed the following year as he scored five podiums.

Considering where he was prior to round four, this was a stunning response to those who had doubted his talents. More than that, it should give Jack some inner peace. “It always takes a bit of a load off. How we approached this weekend was the correct way to do it. We need to keep that train going,” he said. Next up, Le Mans. A Miller and Ducati favourite. What better site to follow the Jerez success?

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by CormacGP @cormacgp

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